Saul Williams first came to wide attention
with his amazing performance as Raymond Joshua in the film Slam (1998, dir:
Marc Levin). The film accounted the imprisonment on a petty drug charge
of a young man with a gift for hip hop-style poetry and rhyme from the gangland
area of Dodge City, Washington DC. The film placed him as a figurehead of
the spoken word/slam poetry movement that has since spread across the USA
and poetry world. Since the film Saul has appeared on compilations: Eargasm
(Loud Records) and Lyricist Lounge (Ozone Records) as well as releasing
his own album in 2001: Amethyst Rock Star (American Recordings/Sony). With
the outbreak of Bush’s “War on Terror” and specifically
the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Saul has become an outspoken critic; taking
part in the brilliant Not In Our Name (Ninja Tunes) series of records and
writing the Pledge of Resistance that appeared on that record and has also
served as a manifesto for millions across the world who have sought the
end of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004 he released the self-titled
album Saul Williams (Wichita/Fader Records) in his own words: "the
tracks range from politics to relationships and the politics of relationships.
What I ended up with was something that captured the authoritative cool
of hip-hop, the playful angst of rock and roll, the raw emotional torment
of emo (and, my favorite, "screamo"), and the fuck offness of
punk" (www.thefader.com/fader/faderlabel). Saul is also the author
of three collections of poetry: said the shotgun to the head (2003 MTV Books/Simon
and Schuster), She (1999 MTV Books/Simon and Schuster), and The Seventh
Octave (1997 Moore Black Press), as well as appearing in several anthologies
and periodicals. On August 25th just passed he played an amazing sell-out
show in Crawdaddy in Dublin to a beautifully mixed race crowd. Before the
show he made time for the following interview with me.
A= Anto, S=
A: In ‘Penny For A Thought’ [on Sony] you referred to how “they” were funding the record. On the new album [on Wichita/Fader] you say this is not for the underground & that kids are welcome to download it. What’s your thoughts on major labels, downloading, the audiences you want to reach?
S: I feel like we’re living in a state of emergency. Personally I’m not afraid of the big bad wolf – which is to say – there has been great stuff that has come through major labels and there’s been great stuff that has happened independently. If you can swim with those sharks and learn how not to get bit – more power to you; and if you feel more comfortable just doing it alone and not risking the sharks – more power to you as well. I think if we’re really about independent artists, then every artist should be granted the independence to decide what’s best for them. I’ve done the major label thing, this time I’m doing it independently and I’m having more fun independently, primarily just because the people that I’m working with get the project. But it’s a different project, I don’t know if I had done this album on a major they might have gotten it too – I’ve no idea. So, I try to stay open about it; on the other hand my books are published through MTV. I’ve never had any issue with them – they’ve always published what I’ve wanted exactly how I’ve wanted it, without any beef. I mean my last book was extremely political, its called said the shotgun to the head, and there was never any question about it being overly political, it’s been fine. So in that sense I’ve been working with a major and I’ve had no beef. In the music world I’ve had beef with majors…
A: In one of the lines
on one of the songs on the new album, you say everyone’s welcome to
download it; the song with Zack [de la Rocka; song is: Act III Scene 2]
S: Right, [quotes:] “this song goes out to all the kids that download this song for free, by any means”.
A: yeh, it’s great!
S: yeh, that’s pretty much how I feel about it, the purpose of the music is for people to hear it. And however you come across it, come across it.
A: You’ve mentioned
that a theme on the new album is the parallel between the gangsterism of
commercial hip hop and the gangsterism of George Bush; and calling people
on their shit…
S: What I was getting at when I mentioned that, I just believe that gangsterism is popular in the ‘States. And I see parallels between what I hear in gangster rap and what I see happening with our current political regime. I look at what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and I know that we do not have to be; as Americans; we are not solely dependent on that oil. But there are other countries, other Imperialistic nations like Germany, France, Japan that are dependent on that oil that comes from Iraq. The fact of the matter is, if we control that oil, we control them – that’s gangsterism; that’s like controlling the ‘Hood … you know. That’s what America is essentially trying to do, it’s playing the role of a gangster – “you gotta come to me if you wanna get some of that, you gotta’ come to me”. And I recognise it and it doesn’t sound much different than what I hear in gangster music, it’s the same sorta thing. Except I prefer it with gangster music, because that’s for us to dance to, it’s like people practically playing characters, it’s music. It’s fine in the music, but when you take it to the actual World Summit then there’s a problem.
A: The ‘Not In Our
Name’ record; you’ve said that you needed to read and hear it,
which was part of your motivation. Personally speaking from going to demos,
being involved in Anti-war stuff, I found that record hugely inspiring.
Your music/art is highly politically charged, how important is that to you?
S: My political action doesn’t come from being an artist, it comes more so by being an individual, realising that I’m a citizen of humanity and I believe we’re supposed to use whatever it is that we have for the sake of ourselves and others, if it’s in our needs. And I speak, that’s what I do, I speak; so it’s my job to speak up, speak out, that’s what I do; there’s other people that paint – they do what they do.
A: I’m interested
in a concept you’ve mentioned before that of ‘living poetry’
– connect our words with our actions and our actions with our will.
Could you elaborate a little?
S: I think I was probably talking about just the idea of, the importance of living one’s life as a poem, just realising the necessity of not focusing on; well I can’t say that I don’t; …my main goal up till now has not been on being an amazing writer, my goal has really been on being a more balanced person. And when I choose what I’m gonna read, what I’m gonna watch, who I’m gonna communicate with, who I’m involved with intimately – all those things have to do with me challenging myself to grow as an individual and then all that stuff filters through my work. So up till now I’ve found that, it’s aided me to focus more so on living my life as a poem, on finding the peace within; than just trying to write good poetry and just do that. Yeh that’s it, it has more so to do with realising the importance of being alive and taking advantage of those moments. It’s like the person – there are some people who are photographers who carry around cameras and as a result sometimes often miss out on a lot that’s happening and experiencing a great deal that’s happening, ‘cos they’re just looking for that great shot – and so for me a lot of times its important for me to put down my camera, which is to say put down my journal and just live – live through the moment, and then in a quiet time come back and recollect and reflect and make sense out of it on paper, but live through it.
A: As regards the commerciality
of hip hop and music in general – you’ve said about connecting
music to its highest power – heightening consciousness and effecting
people’s reality that that’s how music effected you growing
S: Just talking about the fact that music is much more powerful than we think. When I got off the stage last night in London, a guy kept saying: “you should be in politics, you should be in politics” and I said to him “I am, I am in politics, you just saw me”. I mean, here in Ireland I think you guys know that ‘cos I mean two of the biggest political voices I’ve ever heard come out of music have come from here, whether that’s Bono or Sinéad – like ripping a Pope’s picture or her singing [sings] “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses” [from song Black Boys On Mopeds], all that stuff. U2 goes without saying, to me what has become more worldwide as regards Irish music, pretty much feeds that fact that I’m saying, that music is and can be extremely political and can overt certain actions, it can influence – look at the power of influence that Bono has right now, look at that. It’s not minute, as far as the Superpowers are concerned – they’re scared of him. Because from their perspective when he speaks, kids listen – whether that’s true or not; from their perspective he’s rock’n’roll and that’s crazy – that he can get a whole stadium to come out and see him. Bush can’t get a whole stadium to come out, not really, not without being President you know, and it’s not like they’re gonna agree to everything he says – it’s a completely different reality, because the politicians know that the real power is in the hands and hearts of the people and that’s the same thing where music is. Music is in the hands and hearts of the people – it’s direct, it’s direct!
A: Your character in ‘Slam’
is always scribbling away in a notebook, and when without that (bus to jail
scene) gets very agitated, goes a bit crazy. I kind of imagine you always
scribbling away, would that be right?
S: You know, like I said sometimes I’m like that, I’ve been like that, at that time I think I was more afraid of losing thoughts and ideas, I’ve become a bit more patient and I no longer fear too much – losing a thought or idea; but I still carry around something to write with, for sure [laughs].